Fish swimming over coral

How to Take Stunning Underwater Photos Using Inexpensive Point and Shoot Cameras

by Scott Fratcher

Taking stunning underwater photos of the incredible BVI waters has never been easier. Waterproof cameras that once cost thousands of dollars have been replaced by small modern versions that look and feel just like any other pocket camera.

As skipper of a charter boat, one of my main joys is taking people snorkeling to photograph the brilliant coral. Before our guests jump in the water I give a little lecture that often revolves around trying for good focus with the camera set to wide angle and they can take care of editing on the home computer. Invariably they are disappointed with the results. "Well, what do you expect for a few hundred dollars?" they might mutter tossing the camera aside. In truth it's normally not the camera, but some simple photographic training. As you'll see, every photo in this article was taken while snorkeling with an inexpensive point and shoot camera good to ten meters.

Family jumping to water

Family having fun in the water

Pick a place to snorkel

For those lucky enough to snorkel the BVI opportunities abound. "We have two oceans and over 40 snorkeling sites to choose from," local dive expert Tony Brunn from UBS Dive Center tells us.

To narrow down the options first check for the swell direction. "If the swell is from the north then dive on the south," says Brunn. Also if you are not using a dive guide to help choose your location then keep an eye on the beach for lifeguard flags at locations such as The Baths:

Red: No swimming
Yellow: Caution
Green: All clear
Blue: Jellyfish

Lesson number one: Stabilize the Camera

In order to take clear, brilliant photos any camera must he held still. This can be near impossible underwater. The first trick to holding still is buoyancy control. That means having the right weight to floatation so the snorkeler simply hovers at his chosen depth.

Another method to maintain smooth motion is to descend head first into the current, making a long sweeping dive while looking for a photographic opportunity, square off on the subject, take a far photo, swimming slowly to let the camera reset for the next photo. Take a second and even a third close up photo before ascending.

You might also dive down and grab a rock (not coral). Let the current swing your body around and you'll instantly become stable. With luck the fish you were trying to photograph will not have been scared away and you'll have the lung capacity to wait for the right shot.

Lesson number two: DON'T look at the fish!

Strange as it may sound fish are in the food chain and making eye contact with one puts it on high alert. Instead, gaze at the fish through the corner of your eye, and concentrate on the camera view screen.

Lesson number three: Be prepared for any opportunity

It's easy for local legend to predict where certain creatures can be found. For example Roan Reef is a good turtle sighting area, but once we are in the water we are likely to see any number of marine animals.

For that reason, the most important tip to remember is whatever sea creature we come across, try to photograph it from the front, and slightly above or below, and a little to one side to show body profile.

Now let's look at a few more specific tips and tricks.


Soper Hole Marina – Tortola, BVI. Photo by Adam Smith
An octopus changing colors to blend with its environment

The super intelligent octopus is one of the best underwater photographic subjects. A single octopus can produce dozens of colors, while changing shapes at a moments notice.

Octopus feed in the afternoon so anytime you are out past noon keep an eye out. Look for the breathing tube that helps identify a camouflaged octopus. Swim slowly around the octopus while taking photos and watch for color changes. Bright colors, especially blue are a sure sign he is getting agitated and will soon swim out of sight. If the octopus is lazily swimming from rock to rock checking for food, the snorkeler can continue taking photos.

Tip: Look for octopus in The Baths in the afternoon.

Stop the action

A camera can capture a moment where incredible displays can be witnessed. The top photo in this column shows an octopus in the midst of a color change. Note his tentacles are still blue while his head has changed color to match the sandy background. In a nutshell our goal in underwater photography is to present the unseen image.

A couple of remoras

Learn to use macro

Many amazing underwater photos are taken in the extreme close up. This setting on the camera is called macro. The standard digital camera lens will focus to about a half meter. To focus closer, to say 100mm, switch the camera to macro mode, and to focus to 10mm use super macro mode.

Close up photos reveal detail snorkelers would normally never see even if they were diving on the spot themselves. Through photography one can instantly see how a remora (left photo) attaches itself to a whale. While the close up of the Christmas tree worm (below) reveals not only an interesting formation, it also shows the mechanics of breathing and catching food.

Tip: Macro works best in calm water.

A couple of remoras

Christmas tree worm

Study your subject

Reef fish are creatures of habit that live in food chains and quickly recognize a predator. Many swim up and down a set area of the reef grazing and protecting territory. Grouper and flounder will sit on the bottom without moving till they think they have been discovered then they start to fidget. Octopus sit still, and change color to mimic rocks. By studying habits we can position ourselves for the perfect photo.

In the photo below, a puffer swam into the coral, bit and retreated to chew. By timing the advance and retreat I was able to look through the viewfinder, set the zoom and catch the fish with his lips retracted and his teeth exposed in the act of biting making a much more interesting photo.

Tip: Watch for flounder mimicking the bottom on Cistern Point, on Cooper Island.

puffer fish

puffer fish

Family fun

A family vacation on the water can be made more fun with lasting memories by taking "on the water" photos. Strive for something unusual. Try a photo underwater looking up at the group, or catch the family in the middle of a cannon ball water splash. Photos taken from water level have a special look that places the viewer into the action.

Great fishing photos

Ever miss a great fishing photo because you did not want to get your camera soaked? A waterproof camera is the answer. Try for photos that show the fish from a new angle. An action photo of a jumping billfish can be stunning, but a well focused photo down the jaws of a fish showing the inside of the gills can be a once in a lifetime photo. Remember to set the camera to sport mode for short shutter speeds to freeze the motion.

Having trouble focusing?

Underwater cameras can have a difficult time with precise focus. The reflection of the water, floating bits and movement all hinder the camera. If your camera is not focusing perfectly try taking a photo across a flat area such as a coral wall (photo below). Somewhere along the surface of the wall the focus will be perfect, just not all of the photo. That is depth of field, or the section of the wall that is in focus. Once back at your computer check the areas of the photo that have near perfect focus and crop.

coral reef

Up the odds with extra photos

It is particularly difficult to automatically arrange settings for the best underwater photo. The light may be right, but the focus blurred, or maybe the shutter speed is right, but the water clarity is wrong. For this reason take lots of photos. On land you might take two or possibly three photos of your target, in the water I might take ten. Only when you get back to the computer and inspect the photos will you know if every element combined to make a stunning photo.


puffer fish

a fish peeking from the coral

Coral is often better photographed up close with a fish or two peeking out around the corner. The banner photo of this page shows bleak sandy areas in the background. The close up photo above is all bright coral and a colorful fish holding the viewer's attention. Even seasoned divers may find something of interest.

Tip: Look to Cooper Island's legendary Manchioneel Bay's south side for outstanding coral formations.

blur on the lense

Blurs on the lens

Having trouble with those blurry spots on the photo? This notorious problem (right photo) is often nothing more than bubbles that have formed on the camera lens. A quick shake will dislodge the bubble, but keep checking. Every splash, every trip to the surface, even swimming through a bubble trail can cause new bubbles to attach.

Edit underwater photos

Everyone has their favorite editing program. Mine is Picasa by Google. It's simple, fast and free. Start by making a backup of your photo, then in Picasa click the "Basic Fixes" tab and crop the photo. Next click the "I'm feeling lucky" button.

For more detailed editing try the "Tuning" tab, or the "Effects" tab. In the effects you might have luck with "Sharpen" and "Warmify." Keep an eye on the histogram window. When working with color balance a flat histogram tends to mean a good color balance. Gaps in the graph indicate lost information that often shows up as a grainy photo.

Before doing any serious editing to a photo check focus detail before investing time in color balance. Can you see the wrinkles around the eyes? The microscopic hairs? If so the photo might become stunning with a bit of color balance.

Excerpt from "How to Take Stunning Underwater Photos Using Inexpensive Point and Shoot Cameras" By Scott Fratcher. Available for download.